For more than 35 years, the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program has been helping farmers and ranchers grow nutritious food and operate successful businesses without synthetic fertilizer. Now, NCAT has released a new toolkit with trusted and practical resources for farmers who want to transition away from the use of synthetic fertilizers.

“As the cost of synthetic fertilizers and global food prices continue to climb, NCAT is releasing a roadmap for farmers who are looking for a more self-reliant and resilient method of farming,” said NCAT Southeast Regional Director and Arkansas farmer Margo Hale. “A growing number of farmers are opting out of the high-input model of conventional agriculture, which we see now is so vulnerable to global events like war and supply chain disruption.”

As the world’s farmers watch the cost of synthetic fertilizer continue to increase, and global food prices shatter records kept by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the global food system is being stressed like never before. There is a more stable, resilient model being used in every corner of the United States. These farmers rely on biological sources of nitrogen, breaking free of an often-volatile global marketplace.

Farming without synthetic fertilizers is within reach for large-scale food producers, and it’s a requirement for certified organic farmers. Montana grain-grower Bob Quinn transitioned his family’s conventional farm to an organic one back in 1989. Quinn brought Khorasan wheat to the mainstream marketplace with his brand KAMUT. In Maryland, Ron Holter manages his 150-cow seasonal dairy on grass alone, with no supplementary grain. Holter’s dairy has been free of synthetic fertilizer since 1995. Dave Brandt began cover cropping his Ohio corn and soybeans in 1978. Cover crops have maintained his cash-crop yields while reducing nitrogen fertilizer use by nearly 90 percent. Brandt credits cover crops with increasing soil microbial activity naturally, which provides nutrients to the food he grows and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.

Data show consumer demand for certified organic and other regeneratively produced foods continues to increase. The sale of organic products in the U.S. has grown more than 30 percent since 2016, and the number of organic producers is up almost 40 percent. Farmers who use regenerative methods, but might not be certified organic, are no doubt on the rise, too.

Shifting to a production method that is not reliant on synthetic fertilizers can be accomplished strategically over a three- to five-year transitional period. NCAT’s new toolkit guides farmers as they learn to use cover crops, managed grazing, and alternative soil amendments to naturally boost renewable nitrogen levels needed to maintain long-term productivity. These are accessible tools that can result in reduced input costs, increased self-reliance, and more nutritious food grown at small and large scales.

Access the free toolkit and decades of trusted, practical resources here: https://attra.ncat.org/how-to-reduce-synthetic-fertilizer-use/ .

EXPERT VOICES

NINA PRATER
Expertise Areas: Livestock, Soil Health, Organic Crops

Nina Prater has been with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) since 2016 as a Soil Specialist and Outreach Coordinator in the Southeast Regional Office. She strives to help farmers understand soils as a living entity so that they are able to farm profitably and build healthy soils for long-term success. Nina also works closely with the Gulf States Regional Office staff to coordinate outreach efforts in that region. Nina served as an Energy Corps member in 2013 and worked for her local conservation district for 2.5 years before joining NCAT. Nina and her husband Jeremy own and operate a small sustainable livestock operation in the Ozarks hills of Arkansas, where they raise meat goats, cattle, hogs, and poultry. They utilize adaptive grazing methods to build soil health in their pastures.

LEE RINEHART
Expertise Areas: Livestock, Organic Livestock, Soil Health, Grazing, Pasture Ecology

Lee Rinehart is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where he studied animal science and agricultural education. He currently works as an agriculture specialist in the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Northeast Regional Office, where he focuses on pasture and rangeland ecology and grazing systems. He has served as county Extension agent in Texas and Montana, organic farm educator in Pennsylvania, and cattle ranch manager in central Texas. His specialty is developing grazing plans and assisting producers in using animals to renovate pastureland. Lee is a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy Reserve and spends his free time biking, sailing, and renovating his 1925 Cape Cod house in Northeast Pennsylvania.

 

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is bringing its free Armed to Farm training back to the Hill Country, after hosting a 2015 training in Castroville, Texas. Armed to Farm will take place May 16-20, 2022, in Fredericksburg. Farmer-veterans will attend classroom sessions and travel to local farms for hands-on learning experiences. The deadline to apply is Friday, April 8.

Armed to Farm trainings include an engaging blend of farm tours, hands-on activities, and interactive classroom instruction. NCAT Sustainable Agriculture specialists will teach the sessions. Staff from USDA agencies and experienced crop and livestock producers will provide additional instruction.

“We’re eager to bring Armed to Farm back to the Lone Star State,” said Armed to Farm Program Director Margo Hale. “Armed to Farm has served more than 800 veterans in all corners of the country as they start or grow their own sustainable farm business.”  

Armed to Farm is a sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans. NCAT, a national nonprofit organization based in Butte, Montana, developed Armed to Farm in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. Farmer veterans learn how to make a business plan and market their products, how to access USDA programs, set business goals, and develop mentorships with seasoned farmers.

“The education that I received has been invaluable for the launching and development of our family farm, Mind Your Garden Urban Farm,” said Armed to Farm alumnus Steven Nuñez, who farms with his family in Fort Worth. “The NCAT staff were truly knowledgeable and always willing to help and answer questions. The three most helpful takeaways for me were learning of the many resources available for veterans interested in a career in agriculture, the importance of diversifying income streams for the farm operation, and most importantly, understanding how crucial it is to cultivate a new generation of farmers to carry on the service to our country that our aging farmers have provided for decades.”

This training is for military veterans in Southwest. The number of participants will be limited. Spouses or farm partners are welcome to attend with a veteran but must submit a separate application.

Click HERE to apply by April 8. NCAT will notify selected participants by April 15.

Armed to Farm Texas is supported by funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement. Successful applicants may also receive a travel stipend thanks to our partnership with California-based Ranchin’ Vets.

Learn more about NCAT’s Armed to Farm and additional training series at ARMEDTOFARM.ORG.

As a camera soars over an impressive piece of Rocky Mountain ranch land, the narrator says, “The soil that covers U.S. farm and ranch land holds a remarkable story. It’s a tale of success and setbacks. At its best, the soil beneath our feet is the source of life, food, and economic security.”

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) has released its short film, Soil for Water, to highlight a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers across the United States who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

“Your soil health is going to keep you in business,” Texas rancher Tina Weldon says in the film. “If you take care of your soil, the land will give back to you in terms of your productivity.”

More than 120 farms and ranches in 20 states have already joined the free and voluntary Soil for Water network. The project aims to include farmers and ranchers who discover and share land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants, all while improving the profitability of their businesses.

“If we’re going to be successful ranching in the long-term, we need to do a better job working together with other ranchers and learn how to do things regeneratively and profitably,” Montana rancher Dusty Emond explains in the short film.

The Soil for Water project is about implementing practical, cost-effective, and lasting ways to regenerate our soil — making farms, ranches, and communities more resilient in the face of climate disruption.

Unhealthy soil doesn’t absorb much water. Healthy soil acts like a sponge, capable of holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in an acre. Climate trends across much of the U.S. indicate longer, hotter drought periods punctuated by storms that often are more severe, according to a 2021 USDA report. Regenerative farming practices enable the soil to capture rainfall that otherwise might disappear as runoff. Economically, these practices can increase crop and forage production, drought resilience, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, they can improve soil health and biodiversity.

The expanded Soil for Water project encourages the adoption of regenerative land management practices through an interactive website, peer-to-peer forum, in-person and online networking opportunities, and the ability to connect with experts and land managers who are finding success with varied practices.

To learn more about the newly expanded Soil for Water project visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has opened registration for its Soil Health Innovations Conference: Soil for Water, March 15 and 16.

The two-day conference will convene online, and the highly interactive format will connect agricultural producers and educators in a critical conversation about soil health. As was the first conference, it will be an in-depth exploration of agriculture’s sustainable future: on-farm practices, soil biology, carbon markets, and public policy. This year’s conference will focus on farm and ranch strategies to catch and hold more water in the soil.

“The inaugural Soil Health Innovations Conference last spring really exceeded our expectations,” said NCAT Executive Director Steve Thompson. “We were especially struck by the engagement of the participants, both during the conference and afterward through NCAT’s ATTRA sustainable agriculture program. It goes to show that we live in a time when producers and food companies, as well as policy makers, realize how important healthy soils are as we design practical approaches for supporting resilient regenerative agriculture.”

The conference will bring together leading experts and innovative farmers from around the U.S. to share the latest in soil science, best practices in soil management, opportunities for policy change, and the emerging technologies that will drive the future of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Two sessions will focus on the potential to reduce downstream flooding through watershed-scale soil health practices. Keynote speakers will include University of Washington and Dig2Grow’s David Montgomery and regenerative rancher Alejandro Carrillo.

This year’s theme, Soil for Water, expands on NCAT’s nationwide effort of the same name to connect a growing network of regenerative farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

In addition, since one of the best parts of any conference is the chance to greet old friends and make new acquaintances, the conference will have virtual networking tables that allow participants to get together with each other, speakers, and NCAT staff.

There also will be virtual halls where participants can connect with exhibitors and conference sponsors.

Don’t miss this chance to examine current practices as well as the concepts, techniques, and practical applications that may be available in the future. Register to attend the conference, exhibit or sponsor the event at SOILINNOVATIONS.NCAT.ORG.

Keynote Speaker: March 15

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington and Dig2Grow.com
Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

“Soil may be the least sexy resource upon which civilization depends, yet soil erosion and degradation have plagued societies in the past and pose challenges for feeding the future. Growing a Revolution relates visits to farmers around the world at the heart of a brewing soil health revolution that cuts through standard debates about conventional and organic farming.”

See David Montgomery’s biography.

 

Keynote Speaker: March 16

Alejandro Raul CarrilloAlejandro Raul Carrillo, Las Damas Cattle Ranch
Regenerative Grazing to Reverse Desertification


Using regenerative grazing techniques over the past several years, Alejandro dramatically increased the water filtration of his ranch in the Chihuahuan Desert 250 miles south of El Paso, Texas.

See Alejandro Carrillo’s biography

 

Farmers, ranchers, and land managers across the United States who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil are invited to join the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Soil for Water project. Building on an expanding peer-to-peer network of ranchers in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Montana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia, NCAT has opened the program to crop farmers, ranchers, and land managers in all 50 states who are learning together how to catch and hold more water in the soil.

“The Soil for Water project is about implementing practical, cost-effective, and lasting ways to regenerate our soil — making farms, ranches, and communities more resilient in the face of climate disruption,” said NCAT Executive Director Steve Thompson. “We need to start thinking about healthy soil as permanent infrastructure that stores water to better withstand the impacts of droughts and floods. By connecting innovative farmers and ranchers, and tapping into their know-how, we see Soil for Water becoming a key player in regenerating and improving farmland across America. We welcome and encourage farmers and ranchers everywhere to join this free network at SOILFORWATER.ORG.”

To date, more than 90 farms and ranches have joined the free and voluntary Soil for Water network. The project aims to include hundreds of farmers and ranchers who discover and share land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants, all while improving the profitability of their businesses.

James Burch’s Mississippi farm has been in his family for a century. After a long military career, it’s only recently that he started putting the land back into production. He’s passionate about locally grown produce, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pigs. His main concern is mitigating erosion and making sure the soil on his land doesn’t wash away into nearby waterways. That’s why Burch joined the Soil for Water network.

“It’s important to build the soil to the point that you’ve got some kind of cover on it, and any time you get these big rains, it doesn’t take your topsoil to another area,” said Burch. “The vision for my farm is big. I’m taking it one step at a time and using proven methodologies to grow healthy food above ground and maintain healthy soil below ground.”

Unhealthy soil doesn’t absorb much water. Healthy soil acts like a sponge, capable of holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in an acre. Climate trends across much of the U.S. indicate longer, hotter drought periods punctuated by storms that often are more severe, according to a 2021 USDA report. Regenerative farming practices enable the soil to capture rainfall that otherwise might disappear as runoff. Economically, these practices can increase crop and forage production, drought resilience, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, they can improve soil health and biodiversity.

The expanded Soil for Water project encourages the adoption of regenerative land management practices through an interactive website, peer-to-peer forum, in-person and online networking opportunities, and the ability to connect with experts and land managers who are finding success with varied practices.

The Soil for Water project launched in 2015 with support from the Dixon Water Foundation and the Meadows Foundation. Project investors include grants from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), $980,000; The Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, $50,000; the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, $1 million; and the Kathleen Hadley Innovation Fund, $20,000.

To learn more about the newly expanded Soil for Water project, and to join the free network, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.